Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The EEOC and "English-Only" Policies in the Workplace

A common question a lot of people ask is whether it is legal for an employer to have a policy prohibiting other languages from being spoken in the workplace, or, English-only policies.  There is no specific law that explicitly prohibits such a policy but Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination based on national origin, among other protected characteristics, provides that a policy or practice that is job-related and consistent with business necessity is permissible, even if it’s disadvantageous to certain employees on the basis of their national origin, if no other alternative would satisfy the business necessity with less or no disadvantage to the protected group.  Thus, they are legal, with exception.

An employer asserting an English-only policy bears the burden of showing that a policy or practice is job-related and consistent with business necessity. If an employer successfully shows this, the employee must then show that an alternative policy or practice would fulfill the business need without a disparate impact.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in its long-standing compliance manual on English-only policies, provides examples of situations in which business necessity would justify an English-only rule:
  • Communications with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English;
  • Emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language for safety reasons;
  • Cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency; and
  • To allow a supervisor who speaks only English to monitor the employee’s performance if his job duties require communication with coworkers or customers.
Thus, an employer policy that prohibits employees from speaking other languages in idle chat, while on break or during other non-working moments in the workplace *may* violate Title VII and the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act as it may be difficult for an employer to argue "business necessity" or speaking English only during these times.

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